Vienna, March 21 – After pleading poverty and lobbying hard, the Russian Orthodox Church has won a major political victory, although it appears that it may have been knocking on a door that those inside were quite prepared to open. Specifically, Moscow has now agreed to push for a plan to pay for restoring church property even after it is returned to the Church.
The Russian Orthodox Church earlier won a major victory when the Russian government announced its support for draft legislation that would return almost all church property seized by the Soviets. Indeed, some commentators suggested that the Church would become the biggest landowner in the country, possibly owning even more than Gazprom.
But from the Church’s point of view that was not only untrue but also created some serious problems. On the one hand, the draft legislation calls for the return of such property for the use of the Church but explicitly denies the religious hierarchy from renting or selling the property under most conditions, thus limiting the Church’s income.
And on the other hand, that draft legislation specifies that once the Church reacquires the property, it is responsible for maintaining it as religious property, something that officials like Metropolitan Kliment, the Patriarchate’s administrator, now say the Church as a result of the economic crisis lacks the funds to do (www.izvestia.ru/obshestvo/article3126505/).
The Church’s need for government help was made even more directly by Archpriest Vsevolod Chaplin, deputy chief of the Church’s External Relations Department, who told parliamentarians a week ago that “it is obvious that [religious organizations] sometimes need help since their possibilities are limited (www.newsru.com/religy/12mar2009/chaplin.html).
From the point of view of the government and the society, such legislation by itself would create serious problems, making it far more difficult for the authorities to provide money to the Church given Constitutional prohibitions and possibly leading to the further decay of important cultural and historical monuments which many churches represent.
Now, after lobbying the government – although the Church hierarchy denies that it has done so (kommersant.ru/doc.aspx?DocsID=1140806) – the government and the Church have come up with a solution, a new bill that would permit the government to continue to pay for the restoration of churches that are historical-cultural monuments.
On Thursday, Vice Prime Minister Aleksandr Zhukov announced the new bill, saying that it was “necessary to take measures of a legal nature which will create the necessary legal base for the possible financing from budget sources objects of culture of the Russian Federation which are being held as property by religious organizations”
“Kommersant” suggested that this represents a major shift in the government’s position, a clear tilt to the Church, but it appears more likely that this new arrangement reflects the recognition by some in the government of the problems that the earlier piece of draft legislation creates, problems that the Church has been at some pains to point out.
Indeed, a senior Duma deputy with whom the Moscow paper talked suggested that the new law would not have any change in the amount of money the government provides religious organizations – about three billion rubles (90 million US dollars) – but would ensure that it could legally continue after the property was returned to the Church.
The primary beneficiary of this arrangement will be the Russian Orthodox Church. At present, there are 6584 cultural and historical monuments in the Russian Federation with a religious connection. Of these, 6402 are Russian Orthodox, 79 are Muslim, 68 are Catholic, 13 are Evangelical Lutheran, 21 are Buddhist and one is Jewish.
Some civil libertarians are concerned this funding violates the Constitution’s requirement of separation of church and state, even though Russian officials say that they will be providing money for buildings and not for religious activities, a distinction familiar to people in many other countries (www.sobkorr.ru/news/49C34961794A1.html).
But in Russia, there is another and perhaps more serious concern: the quality of restoration work conducted by the Church. Two weeks ago, Aleksandr Kibovsky, the head of the federal agency responsible for preserving Russian cultural objects, said that it was quite poor, thus raising questions about such funding (www.newsru.com/religy/04mar2009/kibovskiy.html).
However that may be, the Russian government and especially President Dmitry Medvedev is committed to spending money in this area, and yesterday “Rossiiskaya gazeta” reported on the start of restoration at the New Jerusalem Monastery, one of the sites they appear to care most about (www.rg.ru/2009/03/20/monastir.html).